Twelve months ago at Fleadh ’22, Westmeath’s Rachel Duffy spoke of her excitement at being selected to represent her county in the Rose of Tralee. Weeks later, she was chosen as the 2022 Rose of Tralee. As she prepares to return Mullingar for this year’s Fleadh, Robert Kindregan caught up with the Rosemount lady, who spoke to him about a year like no other.
Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann 2023 will be one of the last public appearances for Rosemount native Rachel Duffy in her role as Rose of Tralee. She said the festival will be “bittersweet” but is very excited nonetheless to participate in the ‘craic agus ceol’ around Mullingar before her crown is handed over on 22 August.
It’s been a life-changing year for Rachel who made history last August by becoming Westmeath’s first ever Rose of Tralee champion in the competitions 64-year history. She said one of the year’s highlights was visiting India through The Hope Foundation, an experience which changed the way she saw the world.
“Kolkata was just such a world away from Ireland and everything I know. It was extremely humbling and really gave me a sense of how lucky I am in my life,” said Rachel.
“It changed the way I saw life. The charity engagements I have done as the Rose of Tralee have touched me in a way that fun things have not, and they will definitely stay with me for as long as I live.”
Some of the fun included a trip to France where Rachel became involved in an unlikely ceremony: “In Cherbourg I was asked to be the Godmother of a Brittany Ferries Ship, the Salamanca, and baptised the ship. I felt like the Queen!
“Some of the things I’ve done are so bizarre you wouldn’t believe me if I told you about it. All I was thinking was if this massive ship sinks, will there be blood on my hands?”
Participating in the New York St Patricks Day Parade was also a highlight for the Rose of Tralee.
“It was an unreal experience, and I can’t wait to go back. All of the rose’s and escorts marched in the parade, as is tradition, which was a huge honour,” said Rachel.
“I was also invited to Gracie Mansion (residence of the New York Mayor) for breakfast and met the Mayor, Eric Adams.
“We went to mass in St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York too which was amazing. It was just so cool being there at places I’d usually just see on the television.”
Despite attending exciting events all over the world, one of the highlights of Rachel’s year was very close to home: “When I was going back to my homecoming in Rosemount from Tralee and reached the top of my road, I saw a poster of myself and laughed at first.”
“Then I went further down the road and saw flags, bunting, more posters, and I think the road had even been resurfaced. I said to myself ‘are they after doing all of this for me?’
“There were posters and flags outside of every single house, that kids had made, and I just started balling crying. It felt so special, and I love my community in Rosemount so much.”
Rachel added that while the Rosemount community do fuss over her from time-to-time, they’re still not afraid to “take the mick” out of her.
“I love that about by my community; they don’t feel the need to take me too seriously, and we’ve all been on this journey together since I was picked to be the Westmeath Rose.”
Rachel Duffy has a strong connection to traditional Irish music, having performed at trad-sessions at her local pub, P. Egan’s bar in Moate, for many years, and performing Teddy O’Neill on the Rose of Tralee stage last August. The song was a favourite of her grandmother’s when a child, but she had long since forgotten the name of the song until Rachel researched it on the internet a few years ago and decided to learn it.
She recalls being asked to perform the song on the Gig Rig stage last year during Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann 2022 – to the surprise of her family!
“It was very last minute; I was pushed out on the Gig Rig after meeting Joe [Connaire]. He told me to go up to the stage to meet Enda [Seery] when I was with my family watching the tunes,” she said.
“I told my family I was going up to meet someone and said good luck. Next thing you know my sister is ordering chips and she heard this voice on the microphone and said, “that sounds like Rachel?!”
“My family turned around and there I was standing on the stage. They hadn’t a clue, and neither had I! I was terrified but to be honest it was the best thing I could have done.”
Rachel won the Rose of Tralee within weeks of the Fleadh and credits the Gig Rig performance with giving her a much-needed boost in confidence to perform Teddy O’Neill in Tralee.
“I used to sing lots when I was younger but as I grew older, went to college, and met other people, I became less confident in my singing and felt like a small fish in a big pond.”
“I started working at P. Egan’s then and started singing at the odd session, it was still terrifying getting back into it, but since the Rose of Tralee I’m much more comfortable singing. It’s really brought me out of my shell,” she said.
She recently performed Teddy O’Neill on the Market Square in Mullingar for the launch of Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann 2023 in May, to great applause. Rachel said she’ll be taking the song “to the grave” as she’s constantly requested to sing it no matter the event or situation.
Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann 2023 will be the last event in her tenure as Rose of Tralee. While she’s ready to move on, it will be a “bittersweet” week:
“I’m really looking forward to the Fleadh this year it’s always such an amazing week and I had an absolute ball at it last year.”
“It’s extra special for me as it’s my last event as the Rose of Tralee. The week its over I’ll be on the Rose Tour and then off to Tralee to handover the crown. It’s bittersweet in that sense but for me there is no better way to go out than the Fleadh.
“If it wasn’t for the Fleadh I might be more apprehensive about the Rose of Tralee ending but the week is so much fun I won’t be thinking about it at all. I can’t wait!”